GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mike Smith’s injury should have sent the Arizona Coyotes into a tailspin. The loss of a No. 1 goalie is tough for any team, and it figured to be crippling to a club that relies so much on defence.
Louis Domingue changed Arizona’s fortunes. Instead of tumbling down the standings, the Coyotes have climbed within reach of the Pacific Division lead behind their confident-beyond-his-years rookie goalie.
“He’s so calm and relaxed in the net, comfortable, and that breeds out to everybody,” captain Shane Doan said. “The more comfortable he gets, the more comfortable our team gets, and it’s fun to watch.”
Domingue made a brief stop in the NHL last season, going 1-2-1 with a 2.73 goals-against average in seven games. Arizona general manager Don Maloney said he did little more than eat popcorn on the bench last season, so it was apparent the Coyotes did not figure him into their immediate goaltending plans.
But that little taste – of the NHL, not popcorn – triggered something in Domingue.
With that short stint, the 23-year-old native of St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, realized he belonged in the NHL and worked harder than ever over the summer, on his game and his conditioning.
“You never know you can play in the NHL until you actually do,” Domingue said. “Last year, I had a chance to measure myself against the best players in the world and it showed me that I could be here and made me confident for sure.”
It has paid off nicely – for him and the Coyotes.
Domingue didn’t make Arizona’s roster coming out of training camp, though he wasn’t too surprised about it. The Coyotes already had Smith and veteran backup Anders Lindback, so he kind of expected to be sent to Springfield of the AHL to get more playing time.
Domingue took advantage of that extra playing time and was confident when he was called up after Smith underwent abdominal surgery Dec. 15.
The Coyotes looked at possible trades or other ways to upgrade at the goalie position, only to find the player they needed already in their system.
Domingue got his shot when Lindback was sick for a game against the New York Islanders and the rookie came through with a stellar performance, turning away 25 shots in a 1-0 victory for his first career shutout.
He started the next game and has been superb since, entering Monday’s game against Buffalo with a 7-2-3 record, 2.21 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Domingue is the first rookie goalie in team history to win three straight starts and is the second (Robert Esche in 2000-01) to have multiple shutouts in a season.
“You watch him and it’s just, ‘This is what I do,”’ Doan said. “I’m sure as a goalie that’s your goal, but he just seems comfortable and relaxed.”
Domingue has played well, but Arizona’s defence also has been good in front of him. At times with Smith, the Coyotes would be lax on defence, knowing that Smith was back there to save them if they made a mistake.
With a rookie goalie, teams tend to play a bit tighter in their own end, which the Coyotes did when Domingue was called up.
“There’s two things when that happens,” coach Dave Tippett said. “A team will look at that situation and say we’ve got to hunker down and make sure we play a good team game to help the goaltender, and the goaltender feels confident that the group is going play well in front of him. It’s been a good match.”
The match almost didn’t happen.
Domingue and his agent wanted the Coyotes to give him a one-way contract, meaning he would be paid the same whether he was playing in the NHL or AHL. The Coyotes wouldn’t budge, so Domingue looked at possibly playing in Europe.
He eventually decided to stay with the Coyotes, which worked out pretty well for both parties.
“I just left my options open and at the end of the day, I decided to come here and that was the right decision,” Domingue said. “My goal the whole time was to be in the NHL regardless of whether I was going to Europe or not, and I’m here now and I’m happy I chose to be here.”
So are the Coyotes.